State Sprinkler Requirement Poses Affordable Housing Challenge in Rural Areas

A July 31, 2015, Star Democrat article reported that a State mandate requiring  sprinklers systems in new residential homes is creating significant affordable housing challenges in rural areas of the state. HB 366 /SB 602 of 2012 prohibited local governments from weakening sprinkler system requirements in the Maryland Building Performance Standards for townhouses and one- and two-family dwellings, subject to certain very limited exceptions. MACo opposed the legislation, which passed with support of firefighter groups.  The article explained that the sprinkler systems requirements, combined with new requirements for septic systems and energy efficiency, are eliminating affordable housing in areas like Caroline County:

A Maryland mandate could put the dream of building a new, affordable home for low- to moderate-income residents of rural counties all but out of reach.

This is especially the case in Caroline County, where the per capita income of residents is $25,300, or 30 percent below the state average, according to a July 28 memorandum from the county planning and codes department. …

The added cost for sprinkler installation in a new home depends on many factors but ranges from $5,000 to $25,000. Many lots in rural areas rely on wells for water access. Adding sprinklers to homes built on wells is significantly more expensive than adding sprinklers to comparable homes with pressurized public water access.

In the article, broker and real estate developer Blaine Williamson discussed the impact of the sprinkler, energy efficiency, and best available nitrogen removal technology (BAT) septic system mandates on housing costs for a development called Williamson Acres:

At Williamson Acres, modest starter homes list for $150,000 to $160,000.

“That’s the market value. That’s all I can sell them for,” Williamson said. “It costs so much to build them now, I’m not making much money. … When you add the sprinklers on, I would actually be losing money.”

According to Williamson, before 2012 there was more room for profit on the newly built homes. But in 2012, the state adopted codes that increased the cost of building materials such as studs and insulation by roughly $5,000. In 2013, the BAT septic mandate added roughly $10,000 in building costs. …

Even with the BAT septic mandate, Williamson could profit $5,000 to $10,000 from selling new homes, but the sprinkler mandate effectively eliminated a chance at financial gain

Caroline County Board of Commissioners President Larry Porter, a lifetime member of the Denton Volunteer Fire Company, expressed his frustration with the mandate while acknowledging the public safety concerns:

“Where I’ve become frustrated is I’m tired of being mandated to mandate people to do things,” Porter said. “I will never say that I’m not interested in the safety of our citizens and our firefighters, but I have to look at practicality.”

The article indicated that Porter wanted to hear from local fire companies before deciding whether to challenge the sprinkler mandate.  Mid-Shore Board of Realtors (MSBR) Executive Director Debbie Wilkens noted that other counties besides Caroline are also being affected by the sprinkler mandate:

“[MSBR] is hearing complaints from Realtors, builders and potential new home owners in Caroline, Dorchester and Talbot counties regarding the July 1st residential sprinkler requirement,” Wilkens said in a prepared statement. “This new law requiring sprinkler systems for new homes adds thousands of dollars to construction costs and is even more burdensome for those building on properties with wells.

“It basically halts any new construction for affordable housing and will hurt those with lower incomes. No one wants to see a family’s home burn, but MSBR believes people should have a choice on how to protect themselves. Fire alarms and working smoke detectors are effective in saving lives, sprinklers save property. MSBR is working with the Maryland Association of Realtors, along with the other associations across Maryland, to see how this issue can be addressed.”